What's the latest on unwanted alarms?  Reporting back after C & E

Blog Post created by martyahrens Employee on Jun 29, 2016

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A panel discussion on unwanted alarms was held at the NFPA Conference & Expo in Las Vegas in June 2016. Panel members included (from left) Tom Hammerberg, Marty Ahrens, David Kerr, Pravinray Gandhi, Monica Colby, Anthony Apfelbeck, and Jay Hauhn.


Did you see, or better yet, read, the May/June (show issue) NFPA Journal's article, “The Unwanted Conundrum?”  This was a preview of the educational session on recent activities related to unwanted alarms held at NFPA’s Conference and Expo (C&E).  Judging by the turnout, it's clear that this is an issue of concern to many. Fifteen minutes before the sessions started, we had people standing in the back and only a few empty seats scattered about.

I was thrilled that six great people were willing to join me and share their expertise on this panel, including Jay Hauhn of the Central Station Alarm Association (CSAA), Monica Colby of the Rapid City, SD Fire Department, David Kerr of the Plano, Texas Fire Rescue, Anthony Apfelbeck of the City of Altamonte Springs, FL Public Safety, Tom Hammerberg, of the Automatic Fire Alarm Association (AFAA), and Pravinray Gandhi of Underwriters Laboratories (UL.)

• Jay Hauhn told us more about the IAFC and CSAA partnership and the many recommendations they developed. He stressed the fact that there is no “silver bullet” that will solve the problem. It can take several cycles for proposals to be accepted and it takes years before new code requirements are widely applied.

• Monica Colby considered confined cooking fires that were out on arrival and did not require fire department assistance as unwanted in terms of fire department response. She also noted that one in five unwanted alarms was related to construction or service activities. See her full report, Unwanted alarm analysis of Rapid City Fire Department 2014, for more details.

• David Kerr explained how the Fire Protection Research Foundation’s risk management tool for commercial automatic alarms helped them decide to run a single engine cold on all fire alarm responses and to have a 90 second delay ordinance that incorporates the requirements in NFPA 72®.  He also stressed that the tool needs more testing.  Contact Amanda Kimball at if you are interested in learning more about this tool.

• Anthony Apfelbeck reported that neither early intervention by fire prevention with notification of business owners nor fines after multiple unwanted alarms lowered the frequency of such alarms. He pointed out that the results might be different elsewhere; Florida requires alarm contractor licensing and ITM in compliance with NFPA 72®. Read his article, “Two hypotheses to reduce unwanted automatic alarms,” originally published in the May 2015 edition of Florida Fire Service and posted with permission,


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Tom Hammerberg said building owners need to take more responsibility for systems, provide better staff training, and be more careful in selecting contractors.


• Tom Hammerberg pointed out that owners need to take more responsibility for systems, provide better staff training, and be more careful in selecting contractors. Designers should stay involved through installation. Installers and ITM technicians should be certified. AHJs should enforce code provisions. The AFAA offers free webinars and free membership to AHJs.

Pravinray Gandhi described some of the many changes in UL 217, Standard for Smoke Alarms and UL 268, Standard for Smoke Detectors for Fire Alarm Systems. These revisions include but may not be limited to a) firmware upgrades; b) surge immunity; c) end of life requirements; and d) smoke alarm cooking nuisance tests.  In addition to over 800 changes included in the 8th Edition of UL 217, the standard also includes new flaming and smoldering polyurethane foam tests.


The discussion also brought up some interesting ideas. For example, if industry specialists could ride with fire departments to calls from commercial alarm systems, they could help the fire service understand more about the causes of these calls and they would learn more about the fire department perspective. It would also be helpful to know more about how information is communicated to Dispatch. Someone else suggested that improved ventilation might reduce unwanted cooking activations.

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A full house listened to the 90-minute discussion about unwanted alarms. In 2014, U.S. fire departments responded to almost 2.5 million false alarms, almost twice the total number of reported fires and five times the number of structure fires.




There is still more to learn and more to do.  We asked our audience

1. What other work has been done on this topic?
2. What are the most important research needs?
3. What should NFPA do to help?



What do you think?  Let’s continue the conversation.


Do you want more information about this topic? Here are some additional resources from NFPA.

•  “The Unwanted Conundrum” from the May/June 2016 issue of NFPA Journal. 
           Slides from our presentation:  M34 - Unwanted Alarms -- Impact and Mitigation
          What's going on with unwanted alarms? Summary of Educational Session at NFPA C & E, June 13, 2016


        NFPA’s and IAFC’s free Fire Service Guide to Reducing Unwanted Fire Alarms
• Fire Protection Research Foundation’s Risk-Based Decision Support in Managing Unwanted Alarms
Fire Alarm Response and Management Summit - Proceeding Summary, May 2011

  NFPA's 2011 report: Unwanted Fire Alarms
• Fire Protection Research Foundation’s 2015 Report: Smoke Alarm Nuisance Source Characterization: Experimental Results
        Slides from presentation on subject:  M19 - A New Nuisance Smoke Alarm Test--Development and Impact